July 1, 2021 | Rehan Alimohammad and Jeff Leung

Below is an article Partner Rehan Alimohammad and Jeff Leung wrote for the State Bar of Texas. 

One of the first Asian American males to serve as a justice in Texas, Justice David Chew, was sworn in to the 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso in January 1995. Since then, not that many Asians have chosen the path of judgeship. Studies suggest that Asians comprise 5% of the population of Texas. However, out of approximately 4,000 judges in the state, less than 1% are of Asian descent. Judge Linda Chew, of the Texas 327th District Court; Judge Tina Clinton, of the Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 1; and Judge R.K. Sandill, of the 127th Civil District Court, shared their experiences as judges and their perspectives on diversity and recent events.

Chew is part Asian and part Mexican. Her father was in Mexico due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was supposed to ban Chinese immigration into the U.S. for 10 years but was continuously renewed until the mid-1940s (thereafter, a limited number of Chinese citizens were allowed to immigrate per year). There, he met Chew’s mother, and they immigrated later to the U.S. as entrepreneurs.

Clinton was proud to say that “English is my second language.” She was born in South Korea, and at the age of 4, her father received an offer to come to the United States for a job in Maryland. Her parents took the position thinking “that would be an opportunity to better their lives and to help their family.” She still remembers the man who sent the employment offer fondly and appreciates the great impact it had on her life.

Sandill was born to Indian parents in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He spent his childhood in India, Canada, and England on a variety of military bases as his father served in the U.S. Armed Forces for 28 years. In 2009, he became the first district court judge in Texas of South Asian descent.

The judges agreed that the number of Asians in the legal community might not increase. “Being an attorney is not prized in our community … becoming an engineer or a medical doctor is more appealing to Asians,” said Sandill, who also noted that he believes Asians shy away from controversy, which is inherent in litigation. Chew, however, credited her late father for her wanting to become a judge, when he taught her: “If you want to be a lawyer, that’s great … prepare yourself to become a judge.” Her mother, who died in her 30s, also wanted her daughter to become a lawyer, and they would discuss topics such as the death penalty at the dinner table. For Clinton, she credited her decision to some really good mentors who invested time in her during her law school years.

They all agreed that diversity is vital in the legal profession. “Texas is a minority-majority state. We need the diversity in the legal profession to reflect our community … diversity makes the judicial system very well in tune with the people who live within the jurisdiction,” Sandill said. “Diversity is important because the personalities of the judges influence the case, and having diversity on the bench could look at an issue from various angles,” Clinton said. “People that come to the court need to see someone who looks like them … it gives you a comfort level to see people who look like you,” Chew said. “Being a minority gives you different values and experiences. It is important to my clients or people to feel comfortable with us … people will feel that they are understood.”

To increase the awareness and mindfulness of diversity and disparity among legal professionals in Houston, effective September 1, 2021, Sandill will require anyone seeking appointments from his court to have completed 6 hours of CLE in mindfulness, bias, and decision accuracy training. All of Harris County’s county courts have now adopted the same rule. He will not stop there, as he has petitioned the past two years to require bias training for all Texas judges.

Clinton called the recent rise of hate crimes toward Asians concerning. “I know the opportunity is not only for us to make sure our community is safer for everyone but also for the next generation,” she said. “I don’t want our kids to live in that kind of hate.” The judges agreed that hatred and objectification toward Asians are deeply rooted in this country. From “yellow peril” in the 19th century, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the Japanese internment camps, Clinton said this cannot be tolerated. “Asians are the silent minority, and we are easy to pick on,” Sandill said. “Asians are known as the model minority. They work hard but also don’t raise a fuss.” As a solution, the judges encouraged Asians to participate in elections to have their voices heard. “We owe a lot to the African American community for showing us how to evolve. Being a ghost is not an option,” Sandill said.

Although many view the COVID-19 pandemic negatively, Sandill said the pandemic has impacted the judicial system positively and has helped diversity. “Zoom hearings have made the courts open to many who couldn’t come to the court before … it heightens the connectivity because everyone is comfortable, everyone is in their safe space, and because of that, hearings are much more conversational rather than adversarial,” Sandill said. “Lawyers are much nicer to each other on Zoom compared to in person … all the technical difficulties and failures help build rapport and empathy during trials when all parties are trying to work it out together,” Sandill said. “Zoom lets you meet people where they are.”

For those who want to become judges, Sandill advised lawyers and law students to not take judgeship lightly. “Get lots of good experience first to prepare to be a judge,” Chew said. “Have a plan, find good mentors, follow the plan, go get it,” Clinton said. “Don’t sweat the small stuff; they call it the practice of law for a reason. You will never get it 100% right. You get paid to make decisions,” Sandill said. Chew concluded the interview by sharing a quote by Shirley Chisholm: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” TBJ